Monday, 9 August 2010

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, An Alternative View

This weekend saw the launch of the 64th Edinburgh International Festival. It's the largest festival of the arts in the world...the entire world. Ever.

It's the festival that has launched a thousand comedians, who have gone on to.... hold on just a minute - that's not the Edinburgh Festival, that's the Fringe Festival, isn't it? Or was that the Film Festival, or the Book Festival........Comedy Festival???

The Edinburgh Fringe, the Festival Fringe, the Fringe Festival.... it all becomes a blur very quickly.

Actually, it's one of my pet hates - the fact that, though the profile of "the Festival" has become much higher in the last decade or so, but the majority of people who are not residents of Edinburgh are unaware that it is, in fact, two distinctly separate Festivals.

So I'm going to treat you all to:

"The Edinburgh Festival
  My (Massively Oversimplified) Version of it's History".

A typical Edinburgh skyline during the Festival!

The Edinburgh Festival began in 1947. Everybody seems to agree on that. It was conceived as a way to promote visitors to Edinburgh, and was very snobby and posh, compiled of the "high", or classical arts (ballet, orchestra, opera, stuff like that), and was aimed at the upper classes who had the dosh to pay for expensive tickets. Fair enough.

Edinburgh International Festival - link to official site

But then some smaller theatre groups wanted in. They wanted to perform for ordinary people (What?), and sell tickets at a price that was affordable to ordinary people (What, What?), so that ordinary people could also experience the arts (What? Why?), maybe even perform the arts (WHAT?). The Festival people didn't like the idea of the great unwashed being involved in The Arts, it was an enclave exclusive to the Upper Class.

The renegade Fringe organisers (Socialists, by the sound of it!), at first tried to reason with the Festival, tried to make them see sense and include art that everybody could enjoy. But the snobs were having none of it. So, in true Scottish style, the Fringers said "Okay, stuff yer Festival - we'll start our own!". And they did.

Fringe Trailer (this year's Official promo video)

They started The Fringe as an alternative festival to the Festival. A place where all the shows that weren't highbrow enough for The Festival were welcome. A festival that was affordable to all. And the ruffians all pilled in with glee!

It depends on who you ask as to what version of the above events you'll hear. I've seen a lot of websites saying that the Fringe began a year after the Festival. That didn't sound quite right to me, it doesn't tally with either the folklore or the feeling of what I've grown up knowing the Festival and Fringe to be. Having been born and raised in Edinburgh, and having had some very personal experience of the Festival and the Fringe at the coalface, I believe I have enough first-hand experience to know of what I speak (or should it be "write"? whatever...), anyway, I'm not quite old enough to have been around to witness the origins of the Festival and Fringe. So I consulted my mum (also born and raised in Edinburgh) who is, and she said that this site offers the most accurate information of how the fringe came about.

My generation might not have been around for the start of the Fringe, but we sure enjoyed it when the Fringe got bigger, and bigger, and was eventually almost threatening to swallow the Festival whole! My memories are that the two festivals, having opposing views on the whole idea of what art is about and who it should be available to, were openly hostile to each other. It was great fun watching the two battling it out, especially when I was a teenager.

The Udderbelly - link to official site

As a child, I never dreamed of going to a performance at the Festival - it was far too expensive and far too dull. (Although my amazing Gran took me to The Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which was a fantastic, if cold, spectacle!). Walking through the centre of town on my way home from school, you could tell whether the visitors were there for the Festival or for the Fringe simply by the way they were dressed. It was the Fringe for us all the way. Fun shows - FREE shows! It was brilliant! I fondly remember going to the Wireworks Playground (an free, open air venue at the top of the Royal Mile) to see a band called "Pookiesnackenburger" who were mad, and fabulous! A few years later, I saw the original members, plus some new, exciting talent (!), during their debut performance as "Stomp!" at the Assembly Rooms. They were amazing (and if you don't know who I'm talking about, you're either dead, or living a very backwater life!)!

Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo - link to official site

In the past decade or so, the two festivals have been behaving a lot better with each other, as an inevitable result of finding mutual benefit in cooperation, rather than opposition, in the race to catch the all mighty dollar. The result is that it's a bit less exciting for insiders and residents alike, who enjoyed the antics of the two organisations as each year they battled it to outdo each other and garner more publicity/cash.

But it's still a lot of fun, as long as you don't actually live in Edinburgh or, if you do, as long as you don't need to get anywhere in a hurry, at any time during what amounts to the occupation of Edinburgh at Festival time (three long weeks!).

If you haven't been to Edinburgh during the Festival, you can have no comprehension of the sheer scale of it, or how that affects the resident population. The whole of the centre of Edinburgh comes to a virtual standstill as it becomes a giant street party for three weeks or so.

My most extreme experience of this was when I lived in a flat at the top of the Royal Mile (the very heart of the town), just beside Edinburgh Castle (where the Military Tattoo is held during the Festival), and was working as a technician in the King's Theatre for evening performances of a Festival show (don't even remember what show it was - all a blur!), and then going along to do a 10.30pm - 7am shift on the bar at The Gilded Balloon (the first ever Fringe venue dedicated to comedy) - in it's first year of operation.

The Royal Mile on a sunny day, NOT during the festival.

The same spot DURING the Festival!

I used to open the front door at the foot of the stairs to my flat, and immediately have to "s'cuse" my way through the several thousand people waiting to get in to see the Tattoo. Then ten minute walk to the King's Theatre became 40 minutes, as I again fought my way through the hoards of tourists milling about whilst they decided what to do next. After my work at the King's was over, I'd have to make it to the Gilded Balloon (picking up a chippie or baked potato for my tea en route) in 10 minutes, an easy task under normal circumstances, but, after having to wait an extra 15 minutes in the extra long queue for my food, negotiating my way (using elbows) through even more members of the dear public (a.k.a. idiots who have no concept of even the existence of other people, let alone the fact that they might be needing to get past YOUR FAT BEHIND BLOCKING THE MIDDLE OF THE PAVEMENT)............. can you guess what happens next, readers?....that's right, I EXPLODE! B-NAG!

Walking through the streets, buying something in a shop, getting a bus, all simple, quick actions ordinarily, which become major operations requiring vast amounts of time, planning, and patience, during the Festival.

Head in a Bucket Man - a regular at the Festival

This is why Edinburgh folk complain about it, not because they don't like, or enjoy it, as such, but because ordinary life for the inhabitants of the town becomes virtually impossible.

I'm always extra happy and smug to be living in Trumpton when it's Festival time.

I'm still hugely enthusiastic about "the Festival" and it's many advantages. Although I live in the Scottish Borders, I'll always be from Edinburgh, and am tremendously proud of the city.

I am also very proud of "the Festival", and for it's reputation for excellence on the worldwide stage, for introducing and showcasing new talent in every sphere of the classical arts and the alternative/accessible (what's the opposite of the classical arts?-) /non-classical arts!

I love the fact that it's growed and growed to encompass a  Comedy Festival, Film Festival, Book Festival, Jazz & Blues Festival, the Free Fringe,......I could go on and on (what do you mean "You already have"?). Here's a site that lists them all.

I also love the fact that it showcases Edinburgh, a beautiful city nicknamed "The Athens of the North" as a compliment to it's numerous examples of stunning classical architecture. 

I also love what it does for the Scottish economy, particularly when the news this year is that, rather from suffering from the effects of the financial recession, this year's Festival is more popular than ever for the performer and tourist pound alike. 

Mostly I love the Festival because it's pretty much the biggest, and longest, party in the world! Ever! (all volumes!)

But I've been very happily avoiding Edinburgh during the Festival for several years now.

Last night I discovered that my mate, Karen (who is originally from Birmingham), has never been to the Edinburgh Festival. Tomorrow is her day off. She doesn't know Edinburgh that well. *sigh*. Guess what I'm doing tomorrow?..............!

Annywaaay, I'll leave you with my poem wot I wrote about the Festival.

Festival Time Again

Come to Edinburgh
Battle through groups
Of Mediterranean tans
And perfect teeth
Who dominate the pavements
With the confidence of ownership

Come to Edinburgh
See the first ever
Festival of Scaffolding
Which can be viewed
Cleverly displayed around
The cities primary monuments

Come to Edinburgh
Take your pick
Of deep and meaningless shows
Or works of genius
And try working out
Which is which

Come to Edinburgh
Experience sleeping on
The floorboards of
Beautifully architectured buildings
The surrealistic emotions
Of a tinned sardine

What a great
The Highlands!


bazza said...

Hi. Thanks for that comprehensive 'insider' view. We have been saying for twenty years that we must get to the fringe. Shame on us.
My dentist is a very shy man and his wife told me a story of when they were at the fringe and she sent him to get two tickets for the play 'Shopping and Fucking'.
He said 'can I have two tickets for the shopping play', and the lady in the ticket booth said, 'oh, which play would that be sir?'. This exchange went on for some time while they were obviously having some fun with him.
She said it was a funnier scene than any of the shows they saw!

klahanie said...

Hi there,
This truly is a fascinating and fact filled account that you have submitted here.
I had no idea that it is two different festivals going on. You have certainly set the record straight with this excellent and informative posting.
I'm loving your poem and I've little doubt that the Edinburgh Tourist Board should use it:-)
Speaking of the Military Tattoo, my best friend performed at the 1968 Tattoo in a Vancouver marching brass band called the 'Beef Eaters'.
Rob, who was 15 at the time, told me it was one of the greatest experiences of his life. I can believe that.
Thank you for this posting.
In peace and kindness, Gary :-)